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Lone Panda McBlain has day to remember at states

LEWISBURG — Claire McBlain has been the 32nd seed before at states. She’s been the girl in the outside lane in the first prelims heat that most assume is just happy to be in Lewisburg.

But that assumption was quickly shattered Thursday, a career day for the Bonner & Prendergast junior.

McBlain finished 11th in prelims, then 10th in the PIAA Class 2A girls 500 freestyle, her time of 5:13.82 in finals even beating an A finalist at Bucknell University.

Entering with a seed time of 5:23.98, McBlain knew she had the chance to drop, with four weeks and a full taper since the District 12 championships. She blitzed the first prelims heat of the morning in 5:15.59, tunnel-visioned on her goal splits.

In the final, with peers to race and nothing to lose, McBlain let it fly.

“I was ecstatic that I did my best time in the morning,” she said. “So it was kind of like, well now that I’m in finals with girls that have closer times to me, what can I do when I’m racing someone? This morning, I wasn’t really racing anyone on my times, so that was kind of the goal for tonight, just to get up and race and see how fast I could go.”

The answer: Faster, thanks in part to rabbits out in front. McBlain was seventh after 100 yards in the B final, then started reeling in swimmers ahead of her. She was fourth with 100 left, but she was a clear second by the final wall.

“I definitely wanted to race people,” McBlain said. “Then again, I know that those girls have different goals than me and they might have gone a different time than they wanted this morning, too, so it’s kind of a balance between knowing how fast I want to go and seeing, oh there’s another person next to me that I can race and I know I’m doing well so let me try to go out and race them as well.”

McBlain is the only Bonner & Prendie swimmer, boy or girl, at states, which brings a particular challenge for a distance swimmer: Lap counters. Instead of a teammate (for school or club), McBlain enlisted an Archbishop Wood swimmer for prelims and one from Gwynedd Mercy in finals, who relayed the pacing notes from coach Kim Detweiler via the lap-counter in the water.

“They were up to the job,” McBlain said. “So they were happy to do it for me, and I was really thankful because they did a great job.”

Before she got on the blocks for finals, McBlain shot a glance at the scoreboard. Still showing results of the 100 free final, McBlain waited for it to display the upcoming heat, making sure she could glimpse her name on the big board at Kinney Natatorium before getting into her starting stance.

No matter what the next five-plus minutes had in store, McBlain was going to enjoy the journey. And that freedom informed what she would do in the pool.

“I was just so thrilled to be back here,” she said. “I haven’t really been to many (meets this big), so it’s a really nice chance for me to experience what it’s like to swim in the morning and come back in the same event and be with a limited number of people. It was a great moment for me.”

• • •

Dan Bieter stood in a nook on the deck at Kinney Natatorium near the medal stand, watching awards handed out for the Class 2A boys 100 free. Just an hour earlier, it would’ve seemed unthinkable that Bieter would’ve been a spectator and not a participant in the ceremony.

A disqualification in the A final of the 100 free put a damper on an otherwise impressive day for the Cardinal O’Hara senior, a bitter end to his scholastic swimming career.

Bieter entered the meet as the 15th seed. The District 12 champion dropped to 47.53 seconds in the morning to nab the eighth seed for finals, and he was slightly quicker in 47.51 in finals. But after the race, he was informed that he was flagged for moving on the start, enough motion to get his swim disqualified and the time wiped out.

“They told me it was a movement on the start,” Bieter said. “It wasn’t an official false start. I think it was kind of a (bogus) call. They said I moved. We went back and watched the video and were trying to call it back, but I literally just tensed, like my muscles just contracted and they called it. Nothing else to it.”

Thursday was Bieter’s third states berth, culminating a rapid growth from his sophomore season. He was once one of those swimmers to qualify for states only thanks to the district’s automatic berth, but he grew into a formidable medal contender, especially as a senior working with first-year O’Hara coach Cherie Walters.

“I think it’s crazy,” Bieter said. “Where I started, I wouldn’t have considered myself anything back when I started, back in my sophomore year. I was barely making my district cut, and I trained hard, I got in the weight room, and ate right.”

Thursday was a roller coaster, from the jubilation of meeting his A finals goal in the morning to the devastation of a DQ. It’s a lot to wrestle with.

“It felt great knowing I’d made the A final,” Bieter said. “I felt great. But yeah, it is what it is.”

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